The Political Organization of the Omaha Indians

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Omaha Indians were living in what is now Nebraska where they were a farming people who engaged in buffalo hunting. The Omaha fields would be planted in May and tended until the corn was well established, usually late June or early July. Then the entire village would leave on the summer buffalo hunt and return to harvest the corn in September and October.

One of the principle features of Omaha social organization was the patrilineal clans. These clans were named, and membership was through the father, that is, each person belonged to the father’s clan.

The Omaha had a central government which was composed of a council of seven chiefs who were overseen by two principal chiefs. Decisions made by the council had to be unanimous. Each of the chiefs was the leader of a clan which possessed a pipe. The number seven is a sacred number because it is made up of the four cardinal directions plus up, down, and the place in the center where all directions meet. Noting the importance of the two pipes in Omaha government, ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Fletche, in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, wrote:

“The retaining of the two Pipes as the supreme or confirmatory authority within the council rather than giving that power to a head chief was consonant with the fundamental idea embodied in the tribal organization.”

Attending the Omaha council meetings in an ex oficio capacity were the keeper of the Sacred Pole, the keeper of the Sacred Buffalo Hide, the keeper of the two Sacred Tribal Pipes, the keeper of the ritual used for filling the two pipes, and the keeper of the Sacred Tent of War. According to Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche:

“None of these five keepers had a voice in the decisions of the council, the responsibility of deciding devolving solely on the Seven Chiefs who composed the council proper.”

At the Omaha council meetings, one of the members would raise an issue or question. It would then go around the circle, starting with the man next to the man who had introduced the issue. The matter would pass around and around the circle until all came to an agreement. It was not uncommon for an entire day to be spent in deliberation in this fashion. In making a decision, ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report:

“All must accept it and then carry it through as one man. This unity of decision was regarded as having a supernatural power and authority.”

In addition to the seven clan chiefs and the two principal chiefs, there were two other orders of chiefs among the Omaha. There were an unlimited number of lower chiefs known as Brown Chiefs (Ni’kagahi xu’de) and a higher and more limited number of Dark Chiefs (Ni’kagahi sha’be). To become a dark chief, there were seven grades which a man had to pass through. The first of these was to obtain the materials for the staff carried by the leader of the buffalo hunt. The seventh grade involved the giving of gifts to maintain peace in the tribe. When a man had done a hundred of these acts of gift giving, he was eligible to join the Night Blessed Society and to have his daughter tattooed.

Law

With regard to law, accusations of serious wrongdoing, such as murder, were not taken lightly. Many of the tribes safeguarded the social order with some form of punishment. Among the Omaha, for example, there was in the Tent of War a staff of ironwood which had a rough end. Rattlesnake poison was placed on this rough end and a person who was guilty of a major offense would be prodded with the stick, usually resulting in the offender’s death. This punishment was decided on by the council and carried out by a trustworthy man. One of the offenses punished in this way was making light of the authority of the chiefs.

Among the Omaha, deliberate murder was punished by banishment for four years. During this time the murderer had to camp outside of the village and was to communicate to no one. The offender was also required to wear a special garment which was not to be removed during the period of banishment. After the chiefs passed the sentence of banishment, they would take the Sacred Pipes to the murder victim’s family. They would present the family with gifts and ask that they not seek any further punishment on the murderer’s family.

War

Among the Omaha, the true function of war was to protect the people from outside enemies. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report:

“Aggressive warfare was to be discouraged; any gains made by it were more than offset by the troubles entailed.”

It was, however, difficult to stop the young men from going to war. However, there were steps that had to be taken. A younger man would go to one of the keepers of a war bundle and invite him to a ceremonial feast. By obtaining the permission of the war bundle keeper, the leader of the war party was relieved of any responsibility should a member of the party be killed. Chiefs were required to use their influence for peace and could not initiate war parties.

During the nineteenth century, Omaha war parties tended to be small: 10-15 warriors. The war party would usually leave the village at night. The warriors would wear no feathers or ornaments. When returning from a successful battle, the war party would light a fire near the village to signal their return.

Among the Omaha there were two classes of war parties: (1) those undertaken to capture horses and other valuables, and (2) those undertaken as revenge for attacks by other tribes.

The Omaha recognized six grades of war honors which could be taken from the body of an enemy:

  • Striking an unwounded enemy with the hand or with the bow. This was the highest war honor and only two warriors could take this honor from the same person.
  • Striking a wounded enemy with the hand or bow.
  • Striking a dead enemy with the hand or bow.
  • Killing an enemy.
  • Taking a scalp.
  • Severing an enemy’s head.

Among the Omaha, warriors who were recognized for their bravery were allowed to wear a Crow Belt bustle: two trailers of hide covered with feathers hung from the belt and eagle wing pointer feathers protruded upward from the base of the bustle. In an essay in Painters, Patrons, and Identity: Essays in Native American Art to Honor J.J. Brody, Aaron Fry describes the bustle:

“The main body of the bustle was made of an eagle skin with head and tail still attached; the eagle was associated with the destructive powers of the Thunder Being and the destructive nature of war. A wolf tail was tied to the right side of the skin; a stuffed crow skin was tied to the left.”

To be able to wear the Crow Belt, a warrior had to be the first to strike an unwounded enemy in battle; to be the first to touch a fallen, live enemy; to be the second to touch a fallen, live enemy; and then to repeat all three of these deeds of valor. The Crow Belt, originally created when the Omaha, Osage, Quapaw, and Kansa were living as one tribe, represents the mythic relationship between the warriors and their patrons, the wolf and the crow.

Nez Perce Political Organization

The Nez Perce, whose traditional homelands included parts of what is now Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, entered into the American history books in 1805 when the Corps of Discovery under the leadership of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark crossed over the Lolo Trail into Nez Perce country. The Lolo Trail was a traditional route used by the Nez Perce in going to the buffalo country east of the Rocky Mountains. However, the season was late and the Americans floundered in snowstorms and almost starved. The Nez Perce found William Clark and six hunters from the Corps of Discovery sick with dysentery from gorging themselves on roots and fish.

The Nez Perce warriors considered killing the sick men for their rifles, but they were stopped by a Nez Perce woman, Watkuweis, who had been captured by the Blackfoot and sold to an American trader before returning home. She had been treated well by the trader, so she asked the warriors not to hurt the Americans. Historian Stephen Ambrose, in his popular book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, notes: “The expedition owed more to Indian women than either captain ever acknowledged. And the United States owed more to the Nez Perce for their restraint than it ever acknowledged.”

The Americans were taken to the village of the war chief Tunnachemootoolt (Broken Arm). The village consisted of a single long building about 150 feet in length with 24 fires down the center and housing about 48 families. The Nez Perce not only fed the Americans and nursed them back to health, they also made maps for the Americans on whitened elk skins which showed them the river route to the Pacific.

The fantasy of the Nez Perce as a single, politically unified tribe would be later forced on them by the Americans during treaty negotiations which would lead, in part, to the 1877 Nez Perce War. Politically, the Nez Perce were a number of politically independent bands and villages unified by a common language and culture. With regard to language, the Nez Perce language belongs to the Shaptin language family which means that they are distantly related to other Plateau area tribes such as the Umatilla, Wanapam, and Yakama.

Prior to the coming of the horse the village was the primary political unit, and decision-making involved all of those in the village. There was no political organization or government which united the autonomous villages and/or bands. The Nez Perce Tribe, in their book Treaties: Nez Perce Perspectives, puts it this way: “We had (and needed) very little political organization beyond the band headmen and peace leaders who insured the safety and provisioning of the women, elderly, and children.”

Village membership tended to be fluid and there was a constant movement of people between villages. Archaeologist James Keyser, in his book Indian Rock Art of the Columbia Plateau, reports: “People were free to change village membership within their tribe, and even to neighboring tribes, and did so frequently either through marriage or simply from the desire to change situation.”

The extended bilateral family meant that people had relatives in many different villages and when resources in one area became scarce, they could easily move to another village.

The Nez Perce band was composed of several villages or camps which were located along a stream. Band names were usually taken from the most prominent village within the band’s territory. Each village had a council which selected and advised a village leader. Anthropologist Deward Walker, in his book Conflict and Schism in Nez Perce Acculturation: A Study of Religion and Politics, reports: “Village leadership was in the hands of the eldest, able male in most instances, this position being semi-hereditary but also based on individual ability.”

Walker prefers to call this leader a “headman” rather than a chief (“chief” tends to be a European concept). He goes on to report: “In the larger villages comprised of several interrelated extended families, there was often more than one such headman. Typically, they were advised by a council of the elderly and prominent males, with women not having a formal voice in such matters.”

With regard to the role of the Nez Perce headman, historian Alvin Josephy, in his book Nez Perce Country, reports: “His duties were to arbitrate disputes, act as spokesman, oversee the well-being of the villagers, and provide an example of outstanding and generous conduct, sharing his wealth with the needy. In return, the people often gave him food, clothing, and other goods, especially for settling arguments.”

At the band level, the Nez Perce had a council made up of the headmen from the various villages as well as other prominent men.

There were two ways of obtaining leadership status at the band level. The first was to gain a reputation as being a generous man by sponsoring feasts and tutelary spirit dances and by distributing goods. The second way was through war exploits. To become a war chief, a warrior had to obtain ten war honors (coups). According to Deward Walker: “The leader of the most powerful village may have had a greater voice than the others, but not as a rule. Instead, at this level, individual war prowess seems to have been more important in determining a leader’s authority, and well-known warriors might come from any of the villages of the band.”

The Nez Perce also had some governmental organization above the band level. Neighboring bands would sometimes be unified into confederacies or composite bands. The largest of these composite bands was found on the upper Clearwater River, centered in the Kamiah Valley. There were also composite bands in the Lapwai area, at the mouth of the Grand Rone River, at the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, in the Wallowa Valley, and in the Whitebird area along the Salmon River. The composite bands had no single head chief or permanent council.

The Nez Perce shaman also exerted a great deal of political influence and Deward Walker writes: “In fact, a good argument probably could be made for this being the single most powerful leadership status.”

He goes on to report: “Because of the charismatic character of Nez Perce ability, whether political, economic, or religious, the shaman frequently was thought to be an all-around leader. When compared with the temporary and situationally specific authority exerted by other specialists such as war leaders, hunting, root-digging, and fishing specialists, of the specialists in the care of horses, the authority of the Nez Perce shaman was extensive.”

Overall, political organization among the Nez Perce, as well as other tribes in the Plateau area, is summed up by Kent Nerburn, in his book Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce: The Untold Story of an American Tragedy:“No one would presume to tell another how to believe or live, and none could speak for another unless appointed to do so.”

The American government, however, was more comfortable dealing with absolute dictators and therefore attempted to appoint and support this type of leadership in American Indian nations.

Shawnee Political Organization

The Shawnee were a confederacy of five autonomous political units: Chillicothe (Chalahgawtha), Hathawekela (also spelled as Thawekila or Thawegila), Kispoko (Kispokotha), Mequachake (Mekoche or Maykujay), and Piqua (Pekowi). Each of these divisions had its own chiefs. Within the Shawnee, however, each of the five had specific responsibilities. The Chillicothe and Thawekila provided tribal leaders and took care of political concerns relating to the whole tribe. The Pekowis were responsible for matters relating to religion and ritual. The Mekochea were concerned with health and medicine and therefore provided healers and counselors. The Kispokos provided war leadership.

With regard to the possible origins of the division among the Shawnee, Colin Calloway, in his book The Shawnees and the War for America, reports: “The Shawnees traditionally comprised five divisions, though it is not certain whether these divisions originally constituted different tribes, which came together to form the Shawnees, or if they developed during their migrations.”

As with many other American Indian nations, the Shawnee had two kinds of chiefs: peace chiefs and war chiefs. The peace chiefs were responsible for domestic order. This was an office which could be inherited. Colin Calloway writes:  “Civil chiefs tended to be mature men who had earned a reputation for good sense and whose counsel guided the people during times of peace and in everyday affairs.”

On the other hand, the war chief was an earned office. In the first step in becoming a war chief, a young man would have to participate in at least twelve raids into enemy territory. Then he would have to organize and lead four raids. To do this, he would have to persuade other young men to follow him. Just leading a war party, however, was not enough: the raids had to bring back honor and all of the men. According to Ian Steele, in an article in Ethnohistory:  “A raid was considered successful only if the entire raiding party returned unhurt, and if it brought back at least one scalp or prisoner.”

Once a man had become a war chief, he would lead at least twelve successful raids. After leading 12 raids, a war chief was allowed to resign if he wished.

The Shawnee tribal council was composed of both peace chiefs and war chiefs. Charles Callender, in his entry on the Shawnee in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports:  “Elderly men also attended or gave advice and assistance, besides providing information about earlier events and the decisions reached by past councils.”

During times of war, the civil chiefs would temporarily hand over leadership to younger men who were considered war chiefs who would lead war parties. However, war could not be declared unless the peace chiefs agreed. When peace returned, the war chiefs would give leadership back to the civil or peace chiefs.

The Shawnee also had two female chiefs: a peace chief who supervised the planting and prepared feasts of vegetable foods and a war chief who was responsible for the preparation of meat. The female peace chief had the power to stop a war party from leaving. When a war party returned with prisoners, the prisoners would be spared if they were touched by the female peace chiefs. However, if a female war chief touched the prisoners first, they were burned and ritually eaten.

Kootenai Political Organization

The Kootenai (also spelled Kutenai), whose homeland was in the area west of the Rocky Mountains in what is today western Montana, northern Idaho, and southeastern British Columbia, are generally divided into two groups: Upper Kootenai and Lower Kootenai, referring to their position on the drainage of the Kootenay River. The Upper Kootenai lived near the western face of the Rocky Mountains. The Kootenai had several politically independent bands. There was no political unity which tied all of the Kootenai bands together. Kootenai unity was linguistic, cultural, and emotional rather than political.

Among the Upper Kootenai, the War Chief represented the people in “foreign” affairs. For this reason, the Americans considered the War Chief to be the Head Chief. According to ethnographer H.H. Turney-High in his Ethnography of the Kutenai:  “he had nothing to do with the real administration of the band. He did carry with him the love and respect of his people, and he was without doubt the most prestigeful personality in camp, but in everyday life everyone appreciated that the head chief’s contribution was slight.”

This chief was not formally chosen and there was no special regalia associated with the position. The War Chief was simply the warrior who had the strongest military medicine and all members of the band recognized this.

The Guide Chief among the Upper Kootenai was the person who knew most of the trails, the topography, and the geography of the band’s range.  This chief was not selected on the basis of war honors, but rather on intelligence and experience. The Guide Chief selected the camp sites and laid them out. Since the Guide Chief knew the resources of the area well, it was his responsibility to direct subsistence activities.

The Lower Kootenai elected their chiefs. Chiefs needed to be strong in mind, body, skill, and spiritual power. Each band generally elected five chiefs: Band Chief, War Chief, Fish Chief, Deer Chief, and Duck Chief. The Band Chief had the greatest prestige. The War Chief, who was considered to be subordinate to the Band Chief, was a distinguished warrior. One of the responsibilities of the Fish Chief was to supervise the construction of the fishing weirs. The Deer Chief was responsible for leading the communal deer hunts.

The primary functions of the Lower Kootenai Band Chief were spiritual. Among other things, the Band Chief served as the Sun Dance Chief. To be elected as Band Chief, a person would first have a dream or vision in which the spirits would tell him that he was to become chief. The individual would inform council of this vision and would then have to be elected to the position by the council.